So I finished it. More or less. I confess I skimmed and skipped from about page 270 to 350, then read to the end.
Was the effort worth it? Probably not, but it's done.
There were two reasons for the skim-and-skip. First, I still couldn't get myself interested in the characters. I never established a connection with Sweeney, and almost all the others were unlikable. (Annie, the lesbian folk musician, was the closest to a sympathetic character of them all, and she was too minor to carry the book.) Second, there was too much violence. I don't deal well with violence. And this was -- to my standards, anyway -- excessive and graphic violence.
Spoilers abound here, so consider yourself warned.
Summary of the action:
After the whole big scene at the Divine that results in Sweeney's expulsion, Oliver suicides and Angelica disappears. Sweeney accepts this gracious invitation from Angelica's father, and he sets her up with another university. She graduates, gets a semi-cushy government job, stays in Washington DC, but virtually loses contact with the three remaining members of the group: Baby Joe, Hasel, and Annie.
Almost 20 years later, the action picks up again when Sweeney discovers -- as though she's been under a rock all this time -- that Angelica has become a self-help cult figure of mythic proportions, leading a new "religion" of the Goddess. She's Jim Jones on steroids, with this magic necklace to give her almost unlimited power over life and death. She seems to prefer the death part, making monthly new-moon sacrifices at her lavish retreat in Arizona.
She's working up to the biggest, baddest-assed sacrifice of 'em all. To consolidate her power as The Goddess -- with a bunch of names, of course -- she's planning to sacrifice the son she conceived by Oliver before the latter's death. This son, Dylan, is now 20-ish, and is working as Sweeney's intern at the museum in D.C. Despite the yawning difference in their ages, they are lovers. Sweeney knows Dylan is Angelica and Oliver's child, though Dylan believes his father is Angelica's now dead Italian husband.
So it's all a kind of sick, semi-incestuous relationship that gets mixed up with murder/sacrifice and bizarre magic, leading eventually to a huge confrontation in the Shrine -- I'm assuming that's a kind of church/cathedral type thing on the campus of the Divine -- between Sweeney, Angelica, and Annie. Sweeney and Annie prevail, Angelica disappears without explanation, and the whole thing ends up with the ruthless, patriarchal, patronizing, self-righteous Benandanti once more in charge of the world, because after all, there's a bad side to the Goddess, so She had to be defeated.
Oh, and Oliver is now a woman.
Forty-year-old Sweeney is pregnant, and she and her twenty-year-old lover Dylan -- Oliver's son -- live happily ever after. I guess. I'm not really sure, because the Goddess is still there, looking down on them. I guess that means she's not really defeated after all?
I don't know.
And I hate books that end like that.
I came away with a feeling of frustration and anger not just because of the ambiguous ending, but because I felt there was a strong element of deception. Maybe it wasn't intentional, and maybe I just didn't understand the book, and maybe there was some tiny detail in those 80 or so lightly read pages that would have made it clearer, but the impression I got was that author Hand was one of those "the one is as bad as the other, so we might as well stick with the patriarchal devil we know than risk that the alternative might just possibly be worse."
Hand cites certain writers as providing material for the book, and as I mentioned in another status update, I have a lot of those authors' works on my shelves. And yes, I've read them, among many others on the subject. The idea that patriarchy sprang fully-armed from a horde invading Europe from "the northern steppes" is one I'm familiar with, though Marija Gimbutas, one of the main proponents of the idea, didn't make very clear (in the works I read) why patriarchy was indigenous to this particular group or how they developed it. Hand seems to have taken this concept and turned it into hard fact: that no matter what ills they brought to the world, these male god worshiping nomadic tribesmen also brought all goodness and light and civilization. And we should all thank them and their male god that they destroyed the power of the matriarchal/matrilineal goddess who was nothing but evil.
The writing, as I said earlier, is lovely, often tending more than slightly to the purple but in keeping with the overblown concept of the tale. Other than that, it's a wallbanger. I never did connect to the characters, and most of them I retained an active dislike for.
But it more than fills a Bingo square, so I guess that's the consolation. ;-)